Hailing from all over the nation, rising country star Ashley Cooke knows how to connect with all types of people, leading her to cultivate a uniquely relatable writing style and modern pop country sound. This past year has been a big one for the Big Loud Records/Back Blocks Music artist, as she has toured the nation with Cole Swindell and Luke Bryan, and made multiple national television appearances as well as her Ryman and Grand Ole Opry debuts. Cooke returned to the historic Opry circle last month to perform and announce her debut album Shot in the Dark.
The Opry NextStage artist gave fans a taste of the project leading up to it’s Friday (July 21) release, unveiling five of the tracks. Now, the full 24-track collection is out for the world to hear. The album features collaborations with Colbie Caillat, Brett Young, Jackson Dean and Nate Smith, and marks one of the longest debut albums from a female country artist to date. Last week, Cooke sat down with MusicRow to talk about the creation of Shot in the Dark and her journey thus far.
Growing up, she had many “home towns.” She lived in 19 different homes before she turned 18. Cooke was born in Wisconsin and then moved to California to support her sister Jenn‘s acting career. When she was 15, she and her family made their way to Florida.
Cooke resided in the sunshine state up until she left for college. It’s where she feels her most formative years took place and where her love of country music truly developed, which is why she decided to film much of the album’s content there.
During those years, she learned and drew musical inspiration from Rascal Flatts, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and more.
“They take a universal feeling and make it feel very specific. I love that because there’s love, loss, heartbreak, parents, career and so many things you can talk about in music. The way that they say things are just so unique, and we can all feel them,” says Cooke.
She notes that Luke Bryan, who she is currently on tour with, is also a huge inspiration of hers.
“I love how he just entertains, he [knows] how to put on a show and make people [feel good]. That to me was so important to incorporate. I have my more singer-songwriter songs [on the album] like ‘It’s Been a Year’ and ‘Never Til Now (feat. Brett Young)’ that are more lyric/story driven, but then I have others like ‘Moving On With Grace,’ that are a lot of fun and I feel build an arc in a show.”
In her early teen years, Cooke and her sister had formed a musical duo and began traveling to Nashville and writing on Music Row before her sister took up acting. It wasn’t until 2015 that she officially moved to Music City and enrolled in Belmont University to study marketing. Cooke jumped back into music when she entered the Belmont Country Showcase her senior year and won. She then gained traction on TikTok in 2020, propelling her forward as a solo act.
Cooke shares that her writing has evolved since she was a teenager, as she has grown and lived more life. She pulls from her personal stories as well as her experience moving around and meeting people of various backgrounds to hone in on timeless concepts and feelings everyone can relate to, conveying them musically.
“I was always the new kid, which could cause some people to [crawl back] into their shell. So I had the choice to either do that or force myself to be extraverted, make friends and connect with people of different upbringings quickly. It is because of that that I feel I’ve got a decent grasp on different types of humans, and I have friends across the board from different areas and backgrounds. I’m not just from one town in a certain area, and when writing songs for all these different people, I think that serves me well.”
Cooke co-wrote 20 of the album’s tracks and penned one by herself. When crafting Shot in the Dark, those interpersonal skills also helped her to determine which collaborators she wanted to work with on certain song ideas.
“There’s been a lot of times when I’ve been on the road that I’ve heard something in a conversation and think, ‘That’d be so cool [to write about.’ Then [the idea] spirals. I’ll write it down in my phone and I’ll know who I want to write it with, thinking, ‘Oh so-and-so would crush this or so-and-so has mastered this [element] before.’ I’ll save certain ideas for certain people,” she shares. “Sometimes I’ll write a whole song and it’ll feel right—then there’s other times when I know I need a friend [or friends] to help me get out of my own head and bring their flare to it.”
Cooke remembers the moment she got the idea for one of five songs that she released early “Enough to Leave,” which she wrote alongside Matt Roy and Lauren Weintraub about deciding to walk away from a relationship.
She recalls staying in a hotel one night while on tour and not being able to fall asleep until she got the idea out. At 2 a.m., Cooke wrote the entire chorus by herself and then felt the need to bring others in before continuing, knowing specifically that Roy and Weintraub would help the song come to life.
The only number she wrote solo, “Next to You,” came to her the morning after her Opry debut as she walked out to kitchen counter covered with flowers and champagne bottles. The track talks about how true contentment is achieved when you’re surrounded by people you love.
“I never thought [‘Next to You’] would make the album or even be [released],” confesses Cooke. “I just sat down in this T-shirt I’ve had since middle school and I was honestly just journaling with a guitar.”
The closing track, “State I’m In,” highlights her ability to relate to people of various backgrounds united with her skill for pinpointing the strengths in her collaborators.
“I was in a van, driving through somewhere in the midwest, heading to a show. I was scrolling through Instagram and seeing all of my friends getting engaged, married, having babies or buying houses. I was so excited for them and couldn’t wait to be a bridesmaid or an ‘aunt.’ I looked up from my phone and realized that we’re the same age, but I’m with my band on the way to a show and they’re in a house they just bought pregnant in California. I thought that would be such a cool play on the idea ‘State I’m In.’
“I’m in Ohio and she is in California, but we’re also in different states of our lives. I wrote the title down in my phone, thinking I could write it [solo], but then I said to myself, ‘You know who would crush this? Emily Weisband and Jordan Reynolds.'”
Another organic song on the record is one of the early releases “Mean Girl (feat. Colbie Caillat),” which is a melodic, thoughtful warning to an ex’s new girlfriend penned by Cooke, Caillat, Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins. A big fan of all the talent in the room, Cooke went into the writing session with a specific idea. That idea quickly morphed into a cool play-on-words duet born from a different approach they came up with during their writing break.
The title track also formed spontaneously from a conversation, which took place during the end of a retreat Cooke was on with Weisband, Jordan Minton and Corey Crowder. Minton initially said the phrase in reference to taking a risk in the music industry, but it sprouted another double-meaning idea in Cooke’s mind.
While the song is about two strangers taking a shot in the dark—literally and figuratively—Cooke determined that the title summed up her career thus far. The artist notes that if she hadn’t taken a “shot in the dark” with the Belmont Country Showcase, TikTok and more, she wouldn’t be where she is today.
In August, she will kick off the “Shot In The Dark Tour,” her first-ever headlining trek. Cooke hopes that she’ll be able to continue to connect with people everywhere through the album and live shows.
“This is my first time letting people know who I am as an artist and lyricist. I hope that people hear my music and feel a similar way about me to how I felt about the [artists] I loved growing up, and that they find themselves in the songs. I hope they find something that makes them think, ‘I want to hear that line over and over again,’ because it’s so relatable. I want them to feel like the songs are part of the soundtrack to their lives and what they’re going through.”
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